After weeks in the wondrous far north amongst the giant sand hills, magical kauri trees and golden beaches of the beautiful Bay of Islands, I left the car and took the bus, heading south to the pulsating heart of New Zealand’s North Island.
The landscape slowly changed from tropical to temperate, as I passed lush rolling pastureland, populated of course by lots of sheep! After a small stop near Hamilton to view the amazing glowworm caves, eerie and unsettling in equal measure, I continued on toward Rotorua.
Sitting on an intense geothermal ‘hotspot’, Rotorua is a sleepy kind of a town with a relaxed atmosphere, that lies on top of a restless giant. For someone who is normally so in tune with nature, I was utterly amazed and unprepared for what I saw – a living, breathing, bubbling planet, full of life only a few inches beneath my feet!
I disembarked from the bus and explored the town on foot before hiring another car for exploring. The smell of sulphur hung thickly in the air, mixing with the exotic flowers that fill Rotorua’s many parks and its enormous pineapple shaped palm trees! I checked into the aptly named Tiki Lodge motel, and started my adventures.
First, a visit to the Whakarewarewa thermal village, a wonderful maori centre surrounded by hot pools, boiling mud lakes, lunar landscapes and shooting geysers.
Watching the maori craftsmen carving was inspirational but again it was the spectacle of nature that left me speechless. Travelling south to the Waiotapu and Waimangu valleys, I was faced by yet more steaming lakes, strange silicate formations, smoking vents and fumaroles and the magnificent sight of Waiotapu’s world famous, ’Champagne Pool’, and Waimangu’s amazing ‘Inferno Crater Lake’, apparently the largest geyser-like feature in the world! I stood at the edge of the most brilliant ice blue lake I’ve ever seen…but a lake made entirely of bubbling acid!
Waking early on yet another gloriously sunny day, I strapped on my small day backpack and decided to go for some adrenaline thrills! Oh dear! Dangling from a chair lift some 100ft or more off the ground, I was hoisted up the side of Mount Ngongotaha, giving the most amazing views over Rotorua City, Lake Rotorua and the surrounding area, including the distant volcanoes to the south. Then, once I’d explored the summit, I found myself sitting on a piece of plastic which barely covered my bum, halfway between a sledge and a tray, and proceeded to throw myself down the mountainside on ‘The Luge’! Whizzing down a twisting turning concrete luge track at startling speed is just about the most fun you can have…EVER! Suffice to say, I had to repeat the experience quite a few times!
My next stop though was far more effort intensive, more contemplative and ultimately more rewarding.
Travelling south of Rotorua along the volcanic plateau I came to the dormant volcano, Mount Tarawera, which erupted in 1886 killing over 150 people and swallowing whole villages in its wake. Today, it was an uncharacteristically grey day. The mountain was shrouded in low hanging clouds which seemed to roll down to meet me as I nervously joined a climbing party heading for the summit. Lagging behind and gasping for breath, I used my camera as a good excuse to keep stopping for photos, but nevertheless, I pressed on.
Some 5 or 6 hours later, I eventually broke through the mists and reached the summit. Utterly exhausted but elated I took in the brooding atmosphere of the volcano and the breathtaking views over the Tongariro National Park to the south with its active volcanoes, Mount Ruapehu and the perfect cone of Mount Ngauruhoe in the distance.
With a mixture of excitement and a little trepidation, I followed the guide, from the summit down into the crater itself. Sliding down the crater sides, a mixture of scree and gravel, you could actually feel the heat of the volcano through your boots! I have never experienced anything so fundamentally powerful and primeval…a truly humbling experience.
After a few weeks around the wonderfully visceral Rotorua area, I continued my journey south into a whole new world and one which truly brought me to my knees…